For many a music historian, the Village People’s defining anthem “Y.M.C.A” has been categorised as setting a precedents of sorts in depicting US 1970s popular culture – particularly it’s burgeoning gay and disco sub-cultures.
However this wedding reception and school dance staple, is setting a precedent at an entirely different level.
As the clock strikes midnight on the 13th of September this year, the rights of “Y.M.C.A.” will be officially returned to co-author, lead singer, and Village People’s Cop/ Naval Officer, Victor Wills, as Variety reports.
Enacting Section 203 of US Copyright Law, Wills is one of the first high-profile musicians to take advantage of this provision, which allows authors to reclaim rights to their work 35 years after its publication. The Copyright loophole applies to any recorded work published from January 1st, 1978 onwards, including the Village People classic.
With a desire for artists to regain autonomy as well as reinstate artistic license away from the closed-fist of record labels and other publishers, many past musical heroes are coming to the fore demanding what they perceive is rightfully theirs.
Alongside Victor Wills, Fleetwood Mac, Devo, and Huey Lewis and the News have filed notices for their works. The Eagles, as a particular example, have filed notices for two albums, both The Long Run effective on September 25th, 2014, and Eagles Live effective November 8th, 2015 – the rights currently in the possession of Electra Entertainment and Warner Music Group.
Additionally, Eagles member Don Henley has also filed a notice to Geffen Records to reclaim the rights to his solo hit “Boys Of Summer”, effective October 26th, 2019.
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Despite these artists only being able to enact Section 203 this year, country legend Kris Kristofferson actually filed notices of termination for “Risky Bizness” and “Spooky Lady’s Revenge” from Resaca Music Publishing Co as far back as 2008, marking him as one of the first to do so. On the 13th of September this year, the rights of “Y.M.C.A.” will be officially returned to Village People’s Cop/ Naval Officer, Victor Wills.
However, in the case of the Village People, Wills becomes the first to file a successful claim.
Disputes between musicians and record labels over copyright ownership has become an issue which is universally accepted as coming with the territory of being a represented performing artist. However, the case of the individual winning in a battle with the industry heads is very rare indeed, which makes the “Y.M.C.A.” case a landmark example, and very important in the larger scheme of things.
Section 203 of US Copyright Law was first established to allow room for authors and artists to reclaims rights which were assigned to labels earlier in their careers when retrospectively the individual would have been at the whim of labels and their iron-clad conditions.
However despite the second-chance optimism which surrounds this law today, legal language within signed contracts between labels and artists are proving to serve as unwanted complications for the latter in winning back the right to their songs.
Utilising legal loopholes, artists who are legally identified as “for hire” by recording labels back in the 70s, may be exempt from enacting provisions of laws such as Section 203, according to Variety.
In a statement to the entertainment publication, Greg Gabriel of law firm Kinsella, Weitzman, Iser, Kump & Aldiser, has painted a very shaky legal landscape to this issue: “I think the big battleground is whether these work-for-hire provisions are going to be valid in these recording contracts,” hey says.
Similarly, another lawyer, Eric Schwartz of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp’s Washington office,has diffused the fervour surrounding artists’ ability to reclaim rights. Stating: “There’s not a lot of black and white in this area; there’s a lot of gray, both in terms of the legal issues and the business decisions that get made on an individual basis.”
Such “gray” areas are staving off a crazed run-off of copyright losses for the labels, in the face of a reported 534 filed terminations having been under Section 203 this year alone.
In realistic terms Eric Custer of legal firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips has likened the rate of copyright transfers to that of a “drip, drip, drip, and year by year” scenario, stating there “will (not) be a single day where (labels) could lose rights to 25% of their master catalogs.” costs for record labels to take the issue to court and defend their ownership may outweigh the profit being made and overall benefits of keeping copyright to that work to begin with.
For some record companies, such claims being lodged by artists for particular works may not be a cause for worry. Depending on the album or song being fought for, the costs for record labels to take the issue to court and defend their ownership may outweigh the profit being made and overall benefits of keeping copyright to that work to begin with.
Lee Phillips, partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, observing that in some cases, much to the financial detriment for record companies; “There are tons and tons of masters that don’t earn $100 a year… They (record labels) may look at it (the copyright claims being made by artist) and say, is it worth fighting for?”
For example, the two records The Eagles are reclaiming copyright to – The Long Run and Eagles Live – are only meagre successes compared to their other blockbuster selling works. Therefore, the band may not experience too much opposition in court from both the Electra Entertainment and Warner Music Group over handing back recording rights.
However it is through such strategies that another issue is brought to the foreground. If labels let certain cases slide, will that encourage more artists to fight for their works? Phillips laying the land succinctly: “if they don’t fight it, is it setting a precedent?”
No matter the rate of copyright wins, or strategic weighing of financial pros and cons, the provision will surely be giving record labels and publishing companies the sweats. While artists comparatively will be breathing a sigh of relief – well for those in the US at least.
For those across the Atlantic, musicians will be hoping such a precedent will make its journey across the ocean fast. With a bizarre change-over in EU copyright laws having recently forced iconic recordings by Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and The Beatle’s “Love Me Do” single into public property, meaning stakes are high in the on-going David-and Goliath battle between the individual and the institution.
Despite getting the proverbial ball rolling, Village People’s Victor Wills is yet to leave the courts satisfied, with the exact percentage of reclaimed copyright material waiting to be resolved. Wills is claiming 50% from prior owners, publisher Scorpio Music, who have made a counter-claim that Wills’ entitlement is 33%, it seems his day in court will be a very long one indeed.